After all these many years of pastoral ministry with literally several thousand sermons and teaching notes collected, there aren’t many passages remaining that I have not spoken on at one time or another. And looking back at my handwritten sermon notes on this passage that I presented 20 years and one week ago, I opened with a unique illustration that set up the scene of our passage today.
The illustration spoke of an imaginary conversation between then Vice President Al Gore and Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. The scene was at the State of the Union Address where they would be seated next to each other. This annual event features a lot of publicly polite posturing. Everyone is being nice and putting on a pretty face, but everyone knows that there is a tremendous amount of tension just beneath the surface.
This is something like what it must have felt like in the scene depicted in this passage with Jesus being invited to a dinner in the home of a Pharisee. This is not an event of like-minded people getting together to exult and revel in their common values and theological beliefs. Added to the scene is a well-known, local woman of ill repute who is “making a scene” by crying and anointing the feet of Jesus.
To really understand this passage, we need to get back into the Eastern culture of the times. Likely this was a larger than average house. We know also that Jesus was drawing a lot of attention and followers everywhere he went. Surely everyone in town knew of this event happening in this particular house. And though it would seem odd to us today, when an event of this sort transpired, it would not be strange in that culture for onlookers to gather around and watch what was happening.
Understand also how a meal like this (think of the Last Supper also) was done in those days. Guests “reclined at dinner” on couches, leaning on one side with their heads toward a common table in the middle. So the woman in this passage would have access to the feet of Jesus as they extended away from the central table.
If someone comes to visit our home today in our culture, we greet them at the door with a welcome and a handshake, etc. We invite them in and offer to take their coat and hang it up for them. In that culture there was the greeting of a kiss, water for washing feet provided, and oil as a sort of refreshing agent. None of this was done for Jesus – it was a very cold welcome as they began the dinner.
Jesus, Simon the Pharisee, and other guests are attempting to have this dinner with the very audible commotion of this sinful woman who is at the feet of Jesus, crying and filling the air with aromatic smells of the ointment. Though nobody is calling attention to her, everyone sees her – not knowing how to handle the situation appropriately.
The Pharisee is thinking to himself that this popular, yet disgusting fellow named Jesus cannot be any sort of prophet as believed by many, or else he would know that kind of woman this is. And in knowing that, he would not allow this awkward scene to continue. He would tell her to get lost.
And of course, Jesus knows he is thinking these very thoughts. Rather than confront that directly, Jesus launches into a parable and breaks the ice completely. The contrast is between someone who has a relatively modest debt forgiven, versus another person who has a substantial debt erased by the same lender. Who will be more grateful? The obvious answer is given by the Pharisee – the one with the greater debt.
And Jesus zings him with the application. I love this question Jesus asks: “Simon, do you see this woman?” Haha! That is great! EVERYONE sees the woman, but did Simon the Pharisee SEE the woman? Simon saw her as a woman beyond hope and any worthiness of grace. Jesus saw her as a woman who recognized her need of a savior, expressing her faith and gratitude. The Pharisee saw Jesus as a despicable fraud, whereas the woman saw Jesus as the Messianic Son of God who could forgive her sins and give her a new life.
It is all about seeing – then and now. We need to see ourselves as lost sinners. We need to see Jesus also as the hope for all mankind, the one who saw us in our sin and paid the price with his blood. Therefore, God no longer sees us as enemies, but rather he sees us as his adopted sons and daughters. Beyond this, we no longer see other people in the same way; we see others – whomever they are – as mutually-lost sinners who need to be reconciled to God by seeing them as those for whom Christ died (2 Corinthians 5). In this, we see ourselves as God’s ambassadors to a lost world.
So, what do you SEE?
Luke 7:36 – When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. 38 As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.
39 When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is—that she is a sinner.”
40 Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
41 “Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
43 Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
44 Then he turned toward the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. 47 Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.”
48 Then Jesus said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
49 The other guests began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?”
50 Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”